Three games into the Mike Elko era, the Blue Devils are undefeated and have outscored their opponents by more than 22 points per contest. For just the fourth time this century, Duke is 3-0, and both sides of the ball have stepped up to make that happen.
Why, though, does this feel like a carbon copy of 2021, irrespective of the on-field product? One glance at the two schedules may yield a clue, considering that both nonconference slates feature battles against Northwestern and Kansas. In fact, those two programs have made many appearances on Duke’s schedule dating over the past decade and a half.
Since 2008—former head coach David Cutcliffe’s first year—the Blue Devils have faced the Wildcats seven times and the Jayhawks thrice, and 2023 and 2024 will feature two more Duke-Northwestern showdowns (one at each campus) as part of a four-year series.
As Elko and athletic director Nina King look to the future, though, they should consider an alternative approach to nonconference scheduling. What should that approach entail, you ask? Look no further than a pair of thrilling Week One matchups featuring the Blue Devils’ two chief rivals.
North Carolina and N.C. State, in road matchups against Appalachian State and East Carolina, respectively, saw their early-season hopes flash before their eyes, with the Tar Heels outlasting the Mountaineers in a 63-61 shootout and the Wolfpack surviving a 21-20 grind against the Pirates. It was college football at its chaotic finest, and it was something that Duke is missing out on.
Somehow, the Blue Devils have never faced Appalachian State, a surprising fact even when considering that the Mountaineers did not join the FBS until 2014. When it comes to East Carolina, the programs last met in 2005, back when JJ Redick was a senior guard lighting up Cameron Indoor Stadium.
I get the basis for occasional matchups between Duke and Northwestern—the two are the academic powers of the ACC and Big Ten, respectively. But unless they are part of a round-robin series including Vanderbilt, Stanford and Notre Dame, there is not enough context for multiple home-and-home agreements between the Blue Devils and Wildcats. As for Kansas, the reasoning gets murky, unless you consider the basketball history between the two a suitable basis for a football series—I don’t.
At the end of the day, Duke needs rivals outside of North Carolina and N.C. State. Enter Appalachian State and East Carolina.
Boone, N.C., (home of the Mountaineers) is less than three hours away from Durham, with Greenville, N.C., (home of the Pirates) less than two hours away. With over 44% of the current Blue Devil roster hailing from North Carolina or a neighboring state—Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee or Virginia—a trip to Boone or Greenville instead of Evanston, Ill., or Lawrence, Kan., makes logistical sense.
Plus, there’s the competition aspect. Appalachian State is arguably the best “David” program there is, with three national titles from its time in the FCS, a rabid fan base and two of the greatest upsets in college football history—2007 against then-No. 5 Michigan, and earlier this season against then-No. 6 Texas A&M (plus an epic Hail Mary to knock off Troy). As Andrew Carter of The News & Observer put it earlier this month, “While State and UNC have engaged in an endless stalemate to decide which is less mediocre in football, App has become this state’s best, most consistently excellent program.”
While East Carolina might not have quite as storied of a history, the Pirates have still captured seven conference titles and have made 20 bowl appearances. On top of that, the Pirates are on the upswing under head coach Mike Houston, as last season’s 7-5 campaign marked East Carolina’s highest win total since 2014.
Then, there are the benefits for fans. Appalachian State-North Carolina and N.C. State-East Carolina set spectator records, with 40,168 and 51,711 in attendance at Kidd Brewer Stadium and Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium, respectively. If Duke has shorter road trips, Blue Devil fans will be more willing to travel to support the program. Not to mention the fact that in-state nonconference rivalries would add some juice to the home schedule.
Elko said that “anytime we get a chance to play an in-state program, that creates a little bit more buzz and a little bit more atmosphere,” in the leadup to North Carolina A&T’s visit to Durham. Dial that up a few notches, and that’s the type of energy you’ll get from Appalachian State or East Carolina coming to town, and when Duke visits either of those two schools.
Scheduling in-state opponents also helps recruiting, which Elko said “has gotta start inside-out,” in his introductory press conference in December 2021. There is no shortage of elite prospects throughout North Carolina, and tapping into that well is a tactic Cutcliffe used to build the program in the late 2000s and early 2010s. More local games will boost Duke’s profile in the state recruiting landscape.
Considering that nonconference games are scheduled multiple years in advance, this idea is harder in practice. Duke’s 2023 nonconference schedule currently features home games against Lafayette and Northwestern along with a trip to Connecticut. The 2024 slate flips the locations for the Northwestern and Connecticut matchups, and features the first installment of a home-and-home series with Middle Tennessee, while the 2025 slate features the second installment of that Middle Tennessee series and the start of home-and-home series with Illinois and Tulane.
Hosting a local HBCU, a tradition that has been featured on 10 of the last 14 Blue Devil nonconference slates, should also be of the utmost importance.
But starting in 2026, there are openings on the Duke schedule. If Elko and King want to maximize the entertainment value of the Blue Devils’ nonconference slate, look out for players and fans and expand the program's in-state recruiting foothold, they should give Appalachian State and East Carolina a call.
It almost makes too much sense.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.